This article originally appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of Harker Magazine.
When Ella Fitzgerald Park – complete with green grass, a jungle gym, a basketball court and two 60-foot murals – opened in summer 2018, Alexa Bush ’02 got to see firsthand the impact she is making in the world.
“We wanted to create a neighborhood that felt complete, intentional and cared for without having to build a single house,” she told online news source Citylab in an article about Detroit’s new holistic approach to redevelopment.
Bush was recruited by Detroit planning director Maurice Cox, who was one of her professors at the University of Virginia, where she earned her master’s degree in landscape architecture. Cox had a vision to focus on three different neighborhoods to create a model for redevelopment, and he encouraged Bush to leave the private sector to rebuild Detroit.
“Everything about Alexa’s story – her family’s roots in Detroit, her natural inclination to show empathy towards others, a design thesis spent reflecting on neighborhood vacant lots – has prepared her to ably guide residents toward courageous design solutions,” said Cox. “Alexa is such a wonderful role model for young professionals looking for their own path to making a positive difference in the world.”
Today, as design director for the city, she is leading a team of three planners and designers who are responsible for neighborhood planning, development and open space projects for the east side of Detroit.
The east side of Detroit is where Bush’s mom grew up – so when her then-boyfriend-now-husband asked her to move to Michigan after graduate school, it felt right.
Similarly, the decision to go to Harker for high school felt right many years ago. Bush was a member of the inaugural freshman class at Harker when it opened the upper school in 1998.
“Alexa was a huge part of steering the direction of the student body in those first years,” remembered Theresa “Smitty” Smith, head volleyball coach who coached Bush for four years. “It was tough to be a member of that first class, as we were all learning together how to be a high school. Alexa was a positive role model, a leader by example and a multitalented student.”
Members of the first class – who dubbed themselves “the guinea pigs” – bonded as they paved the way for Harker’s upper school. Bush commuted to Harker from Morgan Hill, so when the time came to look at colleges, she knew she wanted a campus where she could walk or take transit.
After a visit to Boston and acceptance to Harvard University, she packed up and headed to the East Coast. She studied visual and environmental studies, which cultivates skills in both the practice and critical study of the visual arts. She chose film production as her focus and thought commercial film was her future.
“I had an internship in New York working on a film and thought this was my path,” said Bush. “But then my senior year, I realized that wasn’t what I wanted to do, which was hard but felt right.”
She graduated from Harvard and landed a job at Google, where she worked for two years. It was interesting, but she realized that a desk job wasn’t for her because she wanted to be more creative and actually create tangible products, she explained. So she applied to graduate school and chose the University of Virginia to study landscape architecture.
She couldn’t have predicted how life after Harker would unfold, but she remembers sage advice a college advisor gave to her years ago when he said, “Alexa, I know you are successful and you like to plan your future, but sometimes you have to just be open to other things happening and then allow them to happen.”
Bush couldn’t agree more; she looks back on her journey and realizes that so much of it was being in the right place at the right time, despite all her planning and hard work. “Being open to opportunity can be incredibly rewarding,” Bush reflected.
Vikki Bowes-Mok is also the executive director of the community nonprofit Compass Collective